Globalization’s Tipping Point and Tibet

The Tibet-inspired flameout of the Olympic torch on the streets of Paris could well be the symbolic turning point of the era of globalization, at least for its major recent beneficiary – China. Take it to an extreme and it recalls the comment of the then-British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey on the eve of World War I, the end of another era of globalization: “The lights are going out all over Europe”

The Tibet effect may not – we all pray – even approximate the events in Bosnia in 1914 which culminated in World War I. Nonetheless, minor events can often tip a delicate balance and stir what seemed dormant passions into gut-wrenching nationalistic rages. In 1914 it was the clash between Serbian nationalism and the self-defense mechanism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which dragged all the powers – Germany, Britain, France, Russia and ultimately the US into a conflict whose consequences lasted not just for the four years of war but for the whole of the 20th century.

The world was already at a delicate balance in terms of the extensive but complex relationship between the US and China when along came Tibet to upset what China had expected would be a triumphant expression of its success and its new global role. On display would be not just China’s modernization and organizing ability and its sporting prowess. Here was a display which would tug at the hearts of almost all ethnic Chinese, be they in Taiwan, Malaysia, Canada or Fiji.

Yet, just before this triumph was realized two familiar groups threw off their cloaks of friendship and set about to spoil the affair by igniting a fire. The spark was provided by one of the small groups of barely-civilized non-Han people living on the western extremity of the Han Empire. In Chinese eyes, the people of Tibet or XiJiang (the Chinese name and a reference to its western location), until liberation at the hands of the Chinese were living poor and dirty lives under a despotic, feudal theocracy. Fanning the spark to produce flames and, they hoped, a conflagration, were the familiar western powers who for 150 years have been endeavoring – often successfully – to humiliate and control the Middle Kingdom.

The Tibet issue threatens not just China’s pride as a nation on the rise. It threatens its centralized, Communist, bureaucratic system of government. It is an insult or worse to Han ethnic supremacy, and a potential strategic threat to a China with a long history of difficult western and northern neighbors. In sum it plays both to China’s paranoia, of being surrounded by countries eager to hold it back, and to the assumptions of the past decade and half (at least) of uninterrupted advance to prosperity and the admiration of foreigners.

It is surely not by chance that the mainland media plays up images of Han and their shops being attacked by their supposed compatriots, the non-Han Tibetans, nor that the events are used both to vilify the foreign media and become an excuse for cracking down on local dissidents. It is surely not because of ignorance that Wen Jiabao and other leaders continue to denounce the Dalai Lama in violent, Cultural Revolution style language and accuse him of demanding independence although he has long accepted the principle of autonomy.

These responses demonstrate the importance for the leadership of staying on the right side of bubbling national pride on the part of the Han 90 percent of the population, even if that means avoiding addressing the real issue in Tibet, or placating foreigners. Indeed, the more noise foreigners make about Tibet, the more the leadership is driven to take refuge in crude denunciations of foreign, and especially media, interference.

Arguably, the Beijing leadership is itself unable to move decisively one way or the other. A collective leadership reflecting competing interests and positions is incapable of moving to try to make a deal with the Dalai Lama while the Tibetans still have a leader they respect and who advocates nonviolent struggle to maintain Tibetan ethnic and cultural identity. Deng might have done.

On the other hand at this juncture no leadership, even in the name of nationalism, can revert to Mao era methods, killing Tibetans as necessary to subdue them and flooding the region with unwilling Han backed by limitless amounts of money. There is neither the collective will nor the willingness to upset foreigners too much when the focus of the government remains primarily on rapid economic growth.

But the latter too can change, which is where the problems of economic globalization merge with Tibet and the Olympics to create a very unstable new scenario. The easy ride into international markets that China has enjoyed over the past 15 years, helped by an indulgent US and ready access to foreign investment, looks to be coming to an end. Trade imbalances, US recession, the return of domestic inflation, currency appreciation, tightening global credit after years of easy money all point in that direction, even without the sharp deterioration in access that might come if the west begins raising trade barriers in response to recession.

Almost everywhere, but particularly in the developed world, there is a growing realization that whatever its overall benefits, globalization leads to rapid increases in income inequality and hence can threaten social fabrics and be easily undermined by democratic politics.

One could add in too the sudden rise in global food prices, giving the lie to the notion that self-sufficiency is no longer necessary and that production shortfalls can always be made up with imports. Now even a mid-sized country, the Philippines, finds it cannot buy enough rice to fill the local output gap.

None of this adds up necessarily to an international catastrophe. But it is wise to be aware of the dangers should national leaders’ responses be driven by short-term domestic and emotional factors rather than longer term perceptions. Imagine if China’s leadership now had the same idée fixe as the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld trio did about invading Iraq regardless of broader US interests.

At the very least globalization looks likely to stall until today’s economic imbalances are resolved. Whether issues like Tibet, Darfur and the Olympics take on a life of their own or fade into the margin will depend on whether leaders remain cooler than the US over Iran and Iraq and cooler than China is so far proving over Tibet.